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September 24, 2013

Firefighters, policemen top budget hearing

Increased overtime pay said to save in annual personnel costs

TERRE HAUTE — Searching for ways to trim overtime pay for Terre Haute firefighters was among the budget-related topics on the table at Monday night’s special meeting of the Terre Haute City Council.

City firefighters in 2013 will receive approximately $1 million in total overtime payments, said Jeff Fisher, fire chief. Fisher was one of several city department heads to answer questions from council members during the two-hour meeting.

While $1 million is an attention-getting number, more overtime means less spending on salaries and benefits for full-time firefighters, Fisher noted.

“It’s cheaper to pay overtime,” said Mayor Duke Bennett, who also attended the meeting.

Quoting former Councilman Rich Dunkin, Fisher said he remains unsure of the “magic number” – the best possible number of firefighters to minimize overtime pay while also keeping salaries in line.

“It’s always an issue,” Fisher said of overtime, noting that firefighters logged 46,000 hours of overtime last year. Most of the overtime was driven by sick leave and injuries that kept firefighters from work, he said.

The city currently employs 137 firefighters, Fisher said.

Many years ago, the city dropped a policy of paying firefighters for long-accumulated and unused sick time upon retirement, said Norm Loudermilk, council president and a firefighter. An unintended consequence of that chance was a big increase in sick leave, he said.

The fire department also has minimum staffing requirements for fire fighting equipment, Fisher noted. Those requirements, which are below National Fire Protection Association standards, also drive overtime usage, Fisher said.

A first-year firefighter costs the city a minimum of $64,000 in salary and benefits, Fisher told the council. There are also training costs associated with new hires, Bennett added.

Under the current contract, up to 10 firefighters may be off for vacation or personal days on any given day, Fisher said. When asked whether reducing that number might help reduce overtime costs, Fisher said, “That’s a great place to start.”

Chou-il Lee, city attorney, spoke later during the meeting and told members of the council that removing items from the city’s union contracts is easier said than done. When you remove something, you often have to add a new benefit in its place, he said.

Other departments represented at the meeting were the Board of Public Works and Safety, the Police Department, the Wastewater Treatment Plant and the Clerk’s office. The City Council budget for 2014 was also examined.

“I think it went well,” Loudermilk said after the meeting. The council conducted similar reviews of department budgets until approximately eight years ago, he said.

Such meetings allow council members to ask whatever questions they wish of administration officials, Loudermilk said. It means “more opportunity for open communication instead of finger pointing,” he said.

The council will repeat the exercise at 5 p.m. today in City Hall. Departments on the agenda include cemeteries, parks, transit, street, human relations, city clerk, city court, engineering and information technology.

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@trib star.com.

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